by Leslie Klipsch
It happened when my son was three months old. He fell off the bed. It was early in the morning and I was an exhausted new mother. My eyes were closed and I heard a thump. (Could I have fallen back to sleep?) I closed my eyes and the baby rolled off onto the hardwood floor. At three months old Oliver measured 27" long. Our antique, cast iron bed stands four feet high.
When people tried to console me, I retorted with the fact that a baby falling from that bed would be like me tumbling from a window two stories up. Terrifying. Something would surely break. And all the while, I was right next to him. A good mother, I told myself, would have never closed her eyes and allowed her infant son to take such a plunge.
He cried for a few minutes. I cried for days. My first introduction to Mother-Guilt.
Mother-Guilt and I have become well acquainted over the first two years of my mothering career. She rears her accusing head quite often, actually. When my son was six months, I fell while walking with him tucked into the Baby Bjourn. Mother-Guilt followed me for days, asking why I was such a klutz. And the questions over the chocolate milk that I let him drink too often! "What about his teeth? What about the childhood obesity epidemic plaguing this nation? Did you think of that?" she mocks. Just the other day she showed up uninvited and reproachful after his two-year-old body plunged headfirst off the cement stoop in front of our apartment. "You were chatting with the neighbor, shouldn't you have been watching your son?"
The morning Oliver soared over the side of the bed I took him to the doctor. I went early and tried to calm down with a cup of coffee at the shop across the street from the pediatrician's office. Oliver slept peacefully in his stroller (Should he be sleeping? Might he have a concussion?) as I sat in a daze at a small table. A kind looking, white-haired woman approached and asked, "Are you okay, dear?" She reminded me of my great-grandmother with her soft voice and concerned eyes. I looked up and asked her hopefully, "Do you have children?"
"Why, yes. I have five." I felt reassured. Surely there had been accidents in her past.
I swallowed hard and the tears flowed again. "Did you ever let any of them fall from your bed?"
"Oh no, dear. I would never have done anything like that."
As mothers, we second guess ourselves constantly and find it hard to fight the feeling of inadequacy. Bookstore shelves are bursting with advice, boasting the "right" way to raise your child. The media bombards us with horror stories about what can go wrong. And we witness other mothers enjoying good moments, appearing to have it all together -- hair dry and stylish, kids standing in a straight, quiet line at the coffee shop, the whole family wearing faces and clothing free of peanut butter or pasta sauce. We are fairly positive that none of her children were ever dropped as infants. Surely she has never slammed a toddler's hand in the car door.
I understand that I am not alone in my angst. Ask any mother and she will share a story. A good friend was dropped and hospitalized as an infant, yet he is a fully functioning adult today. My mother-in-law watched in horror as my husband, then four months old, plummeted down the cellar stairs. I listen to these stories and feel vaguely comforted, crossing my fingers that the guilt-ridden feelings must fade with time.
Cynthia Flynn, Certified Nurse Midwife and PhD, is the expert midwife on Pregnancy.org. She fields such questions from women who struggle with this sort of guilt and has come to believe that it is a set-up. "Women have been taught to fear an infinite number of hazards, but have also been taught to feel guilty for doing anything less than perfection...our culture sets women up to fail at a job everyone agrees is one of the most important jobs there is." Her advice: "There is no way for a human to be perfect, so of course mistakes will be made. Celebrating the successes we do have each day is one way to escape being consumed by guilt and fear."
Debra Gilbert Rosenberg, clinical social worker, professor, and author of two parenting books including, Motherhood Without Guilt: Being the Best Mother You Can Be and Feeling Great About It, notices that women today are quick to leap immediately from making one mistake to feeling as if they should be thrown in jail. (i.e. My baby falls from the bed therefore I am a horrible mother.)
"The media portrays women as mothers, generally speaking, as either 'Mommy Dearest,' a horrible, abusive mother, or more commonly, sitting in their rocking chair bathed in sunlight, a size-2, well made up, a full time lawyer with a perfect house. These are extreme images of motherhood and women are aspiring to this image of perfection that I don't know anyone, in real life, who can achieve it." This can be confusing, especially to new mothers who are in the midst of an exhausting, unfamiliar phase of life.
She also points out that many mothers today are well educated, having held jobs in the past in which they knew clearly the expectations of their work, as well as the markers of success and failure. Such benchmarks in mothering are much less clear and more difficult to define. This can contribute to feeling bad about personal performance. As a teacher, I look to course evaluations or a review from my department chair to help gauge my efforts. As a mother, I find myself struggling -- trying to decipher cryptic messages that decode the quality of my work. I compare myself and my child with others, count bruises, listen for new vocabulary...all in a vain search to measure myself as a mother.
Gilbert Rosenberg, a mother of three, is reassuring. "There are so many ways to be a good parent. It's important to remember that your relationship with your child goes the entire time that you and your child are both alive on the planet...and actually beyond. You are not going to be a bad parent from one or two things -- I don't know a parent who hasn't had a child fall out of a high chair, off a counter, scrape their knees. And actually, some of that helps the child learn. It isn't the end of the world. Everyone learns from it, everyone survives."
By now, the anxiety is fading and I am enjoying motherhood more. Yes, Mother-Guilt still exposes me occasionally. Oliver ran into a sharp corner a few days ago while under the sitter's care. His goose egg protruded an inch off his forehead, it seemed. Of course, I began to panic immediately upon seeing it. Are his pupils dilated? Is he acting like his normal self? Why did I leave him under the care of someone else?!
But these days, Mother-Guilt's visits are less intense and she stays only briefly. Oliver is getting older and sturdier. I have seen that his little body is tough. Skinned knees heal quickly and band-aids are badges of honor. And I celebrate the fact that he spends a lot more time smiling and laughing than he does sad or in pain.
Mother-Guilt lingers long enough to remind me, "Hey! Pay attention! Life is precious! Look out for that child!" But then she saunters away. I am left in a good place -- doing my best, realizing my humanity, and finally, enjoying the journey of motherhood.
Leslie Klipsch is a mother, teacher, and writer living with her husband and two-year-old son in Chicago.
Copyright © Leslie Klipsch. Publishing rights retained by Pregnancy.org, LLC.